Ensuring democracy
H.K. DUA, Editor-in-Chief
Reform of Parliament
Subhash C. Kashyap
Parties in disarray
Pratap Bhanu Mehta
Judicial independence
Fali S. Nariman
Responsive governance
N. N. Vohra

Fighting corruption
N. Vittal

Criminalisation of politics
B.G. Verghese
Strategic vision
K. Subrahmanyam
India’s global role
M.K. Rasgotra
Neighbours and friends
S.D. Muni
Economic roadmap
Pranjoy Guha Thakurta
Energy for progress
S. K. Sharma
New agriculture
S. S. Johl
Save the cities
Water use and waste
Ramaswamy R. Iyer
Science in the 21st century
R. A. Mashelkar
Lessons in education
K. N. Pathak
Empowering women
Mrinal Pande
Problem of numbers
Ashish Bose
How to protect environment
Darryl D’Monte
Health of the nation
Usha Rai

Save cities from collapse


It could be stated with a fair degree of certainty that the world of the 21st century would be an urban world. Between 1950 and 1990, the cities grew more than twice as fast as villages. The last decade, 1990-2000, saw an increase of about 83 per cent in the world urban population, and the cities have added, on an average, about 81 million people annually. In 1950, the developing countries had about 39 per cent of the world’s urban population. By 1990, this percentage had gone up to 63; today, it is estimated to be 70. In these countries, the number of mega-cities, without basic services, is rising.

A recent report of the UN Centre for Human Settlement says: "At the beginning of the new century and millennium, the planet hosts 19 cities with 10 million or more people; 22 cities with five to 10 million people; 370 cities with one to five million people; and 433 cities with 0.5 to one million. Another 1.5 billion people live in urban areas of less than half a million people. The process of urbanisation will continue well into the 21st century and, by 2030, over 60 per cent of all people (4.9 billion out of 8.1 billion) will live in cities."

New features

Moreover, the current world economic order and the pattern of economic development that is being followed by the developing countries is bound to result in unhealthy and unsustainable super-urbansiation.

We would witness not only mega-cities of about eight million or hyper-cities of 20 million or more but also villages turning into semi-urban settlements and second-tier cities becoming larger ones with virtually no civic amenity. This super-urbanisation would be accompanied by super-impoverishment of the urban poor who, according to researches conducted by the UN Urban Observatory, could by 2020 constitute as much as 50 per cent of the total population living in cities.

A new social class of informal sector workers whose living conditions are marked by "low status, low wages, long hours, and insecure habitats", has emerged on the scene and is fast increasing. "As a result of liberalisation", says The Challenge of Slums — Global Report on Human Settlements, 2003, "the cities of developing countries have become a dumping ground for a surplus population working in unskilled, unprotected and low-wage informal service industries and trade". The city of the developing world faces today one of the most awesome tests in our history.

Grim scenario

India is no exception to the general trend of fast increase in the population of cities and the mind-boggling complexity of the problems that it is causing. Although the percentage of urban population to the total population has not risen sharply — it has moved from about 14 per cent in 1951 to about 28 per cent at present — yet, in sheer number it has shown a very high increase. Presently, the urban population of India is about 300 million which exceeds the total population at the time of Independence.

During the last 50 years, India has, on an average, been adding about five or six million people to its towns and cities. There are already four mega-cities (five million plus), 19 metro-cities (one million plus) and 300 large towns, besides 3,396 small and medium-size urban settlements. The number of metro-cities is at present 40, and four of the Indian cities — Mumbai, Delhi, Kolkata and Chennai — are among the 30 largest cities in the world. A United Nations study of 1990 puts the Mumbai agglomeration as the sixth largest city of the world.

The Economic and Social Commission for Asia and the Pacific estimates that between 1990 and 2020, India would add 418 million people to its urban population. If the present densities are maintained, urban areas would be two and a half times more extensive than they are now.

A special feature of the Indian scene has been that the dramatic increase in the size of our metropolitan cities has not reduced the pressure of population or poverty in the rural areas. India is facing problems not only of teeming cities but also of a teeming countryside. The per capita availability of arable land in villages has been declining and the city-dwellers continue to groan under spatial tyranny, particularly in the metropolitan towns. The average space occupied by an inhabitant in those towns is about 1/40th of the average national space available to an individual. Here, no site is too slushy, too filthy and too dangerous for a precarious huddle of huts to be put up and for human beings to dwell in them.

Poor grasp

BLEAK PICTURE: The metro-cities in the country are getting dangerously congested
BLEAK PICTURE: The metro-cities in the country are getting dangerously congested

Unfortunately, few in our country are understanding how mind-boggling problems of immense magnitude are staring in the face of our machinery of urban governance, how the fast emerging phenomenon of super-urbanisation and super-impoverishment of the urban poor is causing a huge storm to gather on the horizons of our cities, how an unholy alliance of unsavoury elements in our civic and national set-up is giving rise to further complications and how poor understanding, poor vision and poor motivation of the wielders of political and bureaucratic power are preventing well-intentioned persons from applying the correctives to save our cities from reaching a point of no return.

The nation, including the enlightened section of it, is showing little concern over the growing complexity of our urban problems and the crumbling edifice of our cities. History, it is said, is no blind goddess and does not excuse blindness in others. She is not going to make an exception in our case. We all have to pay a heavy price for acting like blind men with lanterns in our hands.

Heavy price

The heavy price that the nation has paid in billions of rupees and 800 lives in Mumbai on account of rains has, therefore, not come as a surprise to me. The tragedy was inbuilt in the manner in which our cities are being mismanaged. In fact, mini-tragedies of this nature are happening all the time. According to a study conducted by the World Bank, about 30,000 pre-mature deaths, 17 million respiratory hospital admissions and 1.2 billion restricted activity days are occurring annually in Indian cities due to the poor quality of life. Three cities — Delhi, Mumbai and Kolkata — account for 44 per cent of these deaths. New and more virulent forms of diseases are appearing.

The present unhealthy conditions are estimated to cause an annual loss of 30.5 million ‘Disability Adjusted Life Years’ which is equivalent to Rs 36,000 crore. There are more fatalities each year from road accidents in India than in the United States, though we have only about a twentieth of road vehicles as compared to the latter. Urban environment, too, has suffered deep degradation. Even in not-so-large cities as Amritsar, Ludhiana and Mandi-Gobindgarh of a predominantly agricultural state, Punjab, suspended particulate matter in the air now exceeds the safe level. The dust-load in the air of our cities is the highest in the world. Our unskilled and unhealthy democracy, coupled with the civilisational and cultural arthritis from which our nation is presently suffering, is crippling our cities. The overpowering influence of l and building mafias, the narrow politics of slums, the ever-increasing disposition of the Executive and the Legislature to sacrifice its legal and moral obligations at the altar of expediency and the failure of even constitutional authorities like the Election Commission to check the nefarious practice of creating ‘vote-banks’ of squatters have all combined to make our urban life generally nasty, brutish and chaotic.

Vicious circle

We tend to forget that the maladies that afflict our cities are not merely localised wounds that could be cleaned, disinfected, bandaged and healed. They extend to large areas and have deep roots. Cities shape civilisations and are also shaped by them. They are so inextricably enmeshed that it is impossible to view one without the other. The diseased and dehumanised civilisations are bound to give birth to sick and soulless cities, which, in turn, add to the debasement and disorientation of civilisations. Mutual infirmities get reinforced. A vicious circle comes into being.

It is in this vicious circle that the tragedy of present-day, urban India basically lies. The predatory forces in politics, bureaucracy and civic life and social forces inherent in the general pursuit of shallow materialism have come to dominate the landscape and mindscape of our cities.

India’s governance machinery has turned a blind eye to the deep linkages that exist between civilisation and cities and done nothing to clean up and purify the civilisational current that flows underneath the surface of our cities. Nor has it understood, in any meaningful sense, the various grim challenges that the worldwide phenomenon of fast urbanisation is throwing up. The special features of the Indian urban scene, such as the simultaneous growth of population both in urban and rural settlements, too, have been overlooked. So is the position with regard to the need for enforcing strict urban discipline, making the implementation machinery effective and locating new financial, technical and managerial resources. All in all, this has been a case of a foggy vision, inadequate understanding and colossal casualness.

Consequently, today, in every aspect of city life — density of population; availability of land; housing; slums and squatters’ settlements; municipal services; open spaces; the scale and character of migration; employment; traffic/transport; energy; communication; crime; health and environment, civic set-up and finance — the prevailing conditions present a sad picture.

At present, there is no sanitation worth the name for 52 per cent of the urban population. The sewerage system covers only 35 per cent of the population of Class IV cities and 75 per cent of Class I cities. About 34 per cent of urban population does not have any arrangement even for drainage of rainwater around its habitats. Sixty per cent of the municipal bodies in India collect less than 40 per cent of the solid waste generated daily.

At least 28 per cent of the urban waste is allowed to decompose and putrefy on the roadside and around houses and factories. Quite a substantial portion of it goes into the drains, choking them and creating slush and stink all around, besides providing breeding ground for pests, flies and mosquitoes and cockroaches.

We have the dubious distinction of having the highest congestion rate in the world — about 19 per cent of the Indian families live in less than 10 square metres of space. About 44 per cent of families in the urban areas live in one room accommodation only. On an average, the slums and squatters’ population has been increasing at more than double the general growth rate of population of cities. At present, at least 35 per cent of our cities’ population lives in the slum settlements.

In Kolkata, about 1.5 million people are living in 2011 registered and 3500 unregistered slums. Half of them have been there for two generations or more. The percentage of the slum-dwellers to the total population is now 55 in Mumbai. This percentage rises to 80 if the population living in squalid and dilapidated chawls is taken into account. In the Capital, New Delhi, if the katras of the walled city are added to its unauthorised colonies and 1,080 jhuggi-jhompri (hutments) clusters, about 77 per cent of its population would be found to be living in slums.

New vision

Things have truly fallen apart. Only an elevating vision and strong implementation will can save our cities from a total collapse. The new vision must include comprehensive planning, a new urban land policy which treats land as a source for creating socially and environmentally harmonious communities; a new framework of urban institutions which answers the current and emerging requirements of growing metropolises; a new cadre of urban administrators who have the training and motivation to meet new challenges; a new human settlement technology which promotes technological adaptations and focuses on special problems of poor urban migrants and involves a strategy of changing this neglected lot of today into urban pioneers of tomorrow.

But for all this, we would require a new environment and a new urge to reform our civilisational roots. Neither a great city nor a great country can be built unless the current culture of corruption and callousness is replaced by a new culture of compassion and commitment and it is realised that the regeneration of our cities involves the much wider task of national regeneration. Cities, in essence, are the spiritual workshop of the nation. They mirror the mind and the motivation of the people at large.

— The writer is a former Governor of Jammu and Kashmir and a Union Minister.